North House Project

TEXT Kathy Velikov and Geoffrey Thn
PHOTOS Team North

Global transformation with respect to technology, culture and economy within the past two decades has brought about a serious internal reconsideration of the role of architecture. The modes in which architects operate within the world, the tools and techniques best suited to engage these new conditions, and the nature of appropriate pedagogic tools and approaches that will cultivate the next generation of professionals will help produce responsive and innovative architectural projects that will help improve the ways in which we engage and address contemporary issues. Fundamental to this endeavour is the mobilization of the potential power of new partnerships between academic/practice/industry interests as an opportunity for complex collaborations and the ability to engage within a broader set of disciplinary communities. These forms of successful partnerships will certainly test new limits for design innovation while serving as a lever for advanced research funding opportunities.

Only recently has architecture begun to develop productive industry/academia design research relationships such as those that have been common in the fields of technology, engineering and medicine. However, current government and industry investment in green building research is still appallingly low, given the urgency in advancing innovations in green building technology, manufacturing processes and performance evaluation. A recent report by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) identified that in 2005, research in the US related to high-performance green building practices and technologies amounted to only 0.2% of all federally funded research and only 0.02% of the estimated value of annual US building construction. The condition is laden with potential, as a reliable and continually developing knowledge, practice and research base is essential to the advancement of building and urban design practice within the current mandate for buildings to reduce energy consumption and to increase renewable power generation associated with sustainable agendas. Potentials for researcher/practitioners in architecture are beginning to emerge.

One scenario positioned to lever such outcomes is the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, where international academia/industry teams construct, showcase and enter into competition fully solar-powered homes. The authors’ design research-based practice RVTR, initiated and led Team North, a multidisciplinary Canadian team of students and faculty from the University of Waterloo, Simon Fraser University and Ryerson University, to design and complete the North House prototype for the 2009 competition. The North House prototype offers specific proof of a concept model of a broader set of goals that formed the basis for RVTR’s Latitude Housing System, designed for the 2008 Living Steel Sustainable Housing Competition, and expands on RVTR partners Velikov and Thn’s S.W.A.M.P. House which won a 2005 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence. The prototype combines module and panel methods of prefabrication, and aims to develop and demonstrate a whole-building strategy for solar-powered residential design that approaches questions of how to design buildings that are resilient and adaptive to climate extremes while maintaining strong connections to their surrounding landscape, and how to develop new technologies, alternative energy systems and pre-fabricated customizable components optimized for high-performance net-energy-producing architecture. The prototype serves to test system components that can be applied to a range of residential typologies. Following its participation in the 2009 competition, North House will become a living laboratory at the University of Waterloo where it will continue to be utilized for extensive performance monitoring, systems testing and occupancy evaluation. It will also operate as a highly visible site of public demonstration and education in solar living and energy conservation.

Project funding and financing was assembled through a network of governmental, institutional, industry and private support, providing grants, cash, product, and in-kind contributions. We believe that this model of institutional, government and industry collaboration will be increasingly common where the discipline of architecture can promise and deliver on the design and production of projects that constitute leading-edge applied research with recognizable and holistic products and outcomes. Similar efforts will be necessary to support development in the field of high-performance and experimental building technologies that both drive and lead contemporary demand and market awareness. Successful, compelling demonstrations of sustainable housing are essential for consumers, builders and related building industries to buy into sustainable housing as a marketable option and to transform the nature of contemporary offerings and practices. Similarly, the context of collaboration between academic, industry, government and professional agents helps drive a model of practice that moves beyond current discussions associated with the Integrated Design Process (IDP). Throughout the two-year research and design process of North House, Team North worked in direct contact with industry and manufacturers, multi-disciplinary experts and practicing professionals to develop individual system components of the project, each of which has been developed to the level of a working demonstrable prototype. Of these systems, two in particular–the DReSS (Distributed Responsive System of Skins), and the ALIS (Adaptive Living Interface System)–point towards new directions in high-performance building design and technology integration.

The DReSS is based on the principle of layered high-performance clothing, where each layer performs a specific function contributing to integrated building performance. It combines active and passive technologies in the envelope of the building to result in a net-energy-producing building design. Automated exterior aluminum venetian blinds developed for exterior and cold weather use block 80 percent of solar radiation in the summer, while allowing individual control of clerestory tilt angles for light and view. In the winter, the shades retract and the large areas of highly insulated glazing (R-12.5 centre-of-glass rating) with selective UV coatings maximize passive heating for the house. Intensive analysis was carried out to investigate over 60 glazing combinations with different types of glass, films, coatings and configurations, from double-glazed to quintuple-glazed to double faades. Based on this investigation, a quad-glazed krypton-filled unit was chosen due to an optimum balance of U-value, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) and solar transmittance. The glazing panels are positioned within a custom structural wood curtain wall system deploying rubberized “thermally inert” caps on the vertical and fibreglass caps on horizontal joints to maximize frame efficiency. Phase-change materials (PCMs) integrated in the floor assembly mitigate temperature fluctuations and store daytime heat for release during the night. The exterior shades are linked to a custom sensor and control system that tracks the sun throughout the day and season, providing for a highly environmentally responsive envelope that continually allows for natural light and views. Interior shades provide privacy and are paired with the custom parametrically modelled and panellized interior ceiling system to reduce glare, diffuse natural and artificial LED lighting, and dampen acoustics within the house. Solar-power generation includes a rooftop BAPV (Building Applied Photovoltaic) array, as well as highly efficient glass-encapsulated BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaic) faades on the east, south and west elevations which capture low sun angles in winter months and in the early and late parts of the day. Solar thermal collectors provide hot water for resident use and for running the highly e
fficient solar-assisted reversible heat pump system (also custom-designed for the house) that very efficiently heats and cools the house. Operable windows provide passive ventilation in the shoulder seasons. These systems, in combination with R-66 opaque envelope components, are designed to make North House a net-energy producer within the demanding conditions of northern climates. Excess energy from the total 13.5 kWp PV system can be sold back to the electrical grid, taking advantage of the feed-in tariff program recently introduced by the Ontario Power Authority that pays up to $0.8 kWh for small-scale independent energy production.

The ALIS and smart-home control system combines a customized set of advanced controls with direct and ambient feedback systems intended to enhance and mediate individuals’ relationships to the complex technologies and systems of the home. Touch screens with a custom graphic user interface are integrated in the home to easily and intuitively control the lights, shades, and climate settings in the house. An ambient display of variable LED lights signals energy and water use, and through subtle cues, fosters behavioural reinforcement of sustainable use of the home. ALIS also delivers a series of community-based Web application tools that have been designed to support the North House resident in maintaining low-energy-use living patterns. The resident can compete in energy reduction challenges, compare energy stats against the community average, and share energy-saving advice through a series of Web-based forums.

An emerging area of research in the design of sustainable buildings examines the extent to which the occupants of that building are engaged and involved with its operation. Research has found that actions of building occupants can account for significant variations in building energy use. The motivation for the design of North House, ALIS is rooted in the observation that intelligent buildings are not just automated but provide the occupants with the information and access to help the building operate more efficiently. Supporting behavioural transformations that lead toward energy-saving living patterns, the ALIS moves beyond automated controls to directly address the needs of residential occupants by providing an easy-to-use ubiquitous interface that helps the occupant control the systems of the house while integrating the user’s lifestyle and providing meaningful performance feedback. Working with human test subjects within the university and with computer software design consultants, the design team developed the ALIS system for North House under the principles of ubiquity, contextually appropriate information and control, integration with life, and meaningful performance feedback. The extent of the automation within the home was continually at the forefront of the discussion, as was the integration with currently accepted technologies such as smart phones and internet tools. The system is currently in a beta testing stage and is intended to undergo several rounds of development before its commercialization.

These are just two examples of several within the project where the creation of multidisciplinary teams to work on specific areas of focus within the overall project generated highly innovative solutions, brought to proof-of-concept stage in remarkably short time frames. In total, almost 80 graduate and undergraduate students were involved in a number of course offerings throughout the project’s development that valourized this form of “learning though doing” from a range of disciplinary silos. Ten graduate students from the University of Waterloo were paid for their full-time work on the project and their contributions formed the basis of their graduate thesis requirements. We believe this kind of design research pedagogy will become increasingly dominant within architectural education in the coming years. In some instances, these students now possess expertise and experience beyond the level of most professional offices that they will soon join.

Facilitation of the North House prototype’s manufacture was enabled by its ability to operate outside of traditional project procurement constraints. Certainly, relationships with industry manufacturers were essential to its realization. These range from direct product donation, to at-cost supply, technical consultation and collaboration, and the manufacture of new customized products developed to suit the low-energy demands of the prototype. Numerous products deployed in the project are drawn from foreign commercial applications, and required special testing in order to meet domestic building code requirements. Rather than tendering the project to a general contractor, Team North operated as project managers with Toronto-based expert fabricators MCM2001 Inc. who handled the fabrication, installation and construction of the prototype on a cost-plus basis. This arrangement permitted extensive refinement of project details in terms of both material and process selection during construction, in direct day-to-day dialogue with design team members at the construction site. Team members revised as-built drawings and specifications along the way, with the entire prototype being fabricated in just under 12 weeks.

For RVTR, this project represents its first foray into design research at the scale of prototype manufacture, and has reinforced the belief that this alternative model of practice model will yield significant disciplinary outcomes and transformation in the future. Beyond the development of the first proof-of-concept prototype, several research streams focused on responsive building envelopes, energy-producing faades, building automation interface systems, and module-based mass-customization strategies have emerged from the North House project and will be developed over the next several years with new partners and collaborative networks. CA

Geoffrey Thn and Kathy Velikov are partners in RVTR, a research-based practice currently located in Toronto. Kathy Velikov is an Assistant Professor and Geoffrey Thn is an Associate Professor at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan.

Team North is comprised of over 80 graduate students, faculty collaborators, de-sign professionals, industry partners, and product manufacturers. For a full list of Team North credits, see For more information on the North House Project, see